2012 has not been a bad year for anime. There have been quite a few solid high-quality series, but what I haven’t seen so far is anything that struck me as a truly outstanding 5-star series, something likely to show up in someone’s list of the “Best 10 Anime of the Decade.” However now we may have a candidate.
Shin Sekai Yori (From the New World) (Crunchyroll) is a smart, subtle science fiction story, full of pretty images and chilling undertones. This is a rather dark tale with some violence but it avoids gratuitous gore, seeking to chill rather than horrify. As far as age-appropriateness goes I would say that anyone who is old enough to enjoy The Hunger Games is old enough for this.
The first episode begins with a brief, confusing and disturbing sequence. If you blink you’ll miss it. It’s set in modern Tokyo and it looks like a couple of angry teenage boys are using psychic powers to kill their classmates.
The scene immediately shifts to the setting of the main story: Japan 1000 years from now. It appears to be a beautiful peaceful rural place with a small population of people living in harmony with nature.
We don’t see any sign of advanced machines but they do seem to have mastered some pretty sophisticated genetic engineering.
Children play on a hill overlooking the rice fields. As the sun sets they are summoned home by a loudspeaker playing the haunting “Come Back” theme from Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor: From the New World.
The protagonist, 12-year-old Saki Watanabe, wakes from a troubled sleep to find objects levitating around her room. Her parents joyfully assure her that this means she has acquired juryoku (literally “magic power”) an important step in growing up.
Her parents are more relieved than they let on. In fact they have been frantic. The other members of Saki’s class have already gained juryoku. It seems that children who don’t develop it eventually disappear and nobody ever speaks of them again.
Saki is not oblivious to this but she doesn’t fully understand it either. It’s not the sort of thing adults explain to children and it’s not the sort of thing children can ask their parents about.
For the first time in her life Saki is taken outside the “sacred barrier” that surrounds her village, to a mysterious temple where she is subjected to a strange hypnotic purification ritual.
Saki is enrolled in a new school called the “Unified Class” which specializes in teaching children how to use their new powers. (Sort of like Hogwarts except…not so much.) She is assigned to a study group that includes some friends she knew from her elementary school.
Satoru is cheerful and mischievous and loves to tell scary stories.
Maria is smart but emotional and tends to be bossy.
Shun is thoughtful and kind. He seems to have the strongest juryoku of the group. Saki is secretly attracted to him.
Reiko and Mamoru are from another elementary school. Saki doesn’t know them well.
The curriculum includes standard academic subjects such as reading lessons featuring stories about children who ignored the advice of their elders and suffered horrible fates as a result. However much of the time is devoted to exercises in manipulating objects with their minds.
The study group constantly loses competitions with other groups, mainly because Reiko keeps messing up. She has trouble controlling her powers and panics under pressure.
Frustrated by Reiko’s clumsiness the others start to shun her. After a few days Reiko vanishes and nobody ever speaks of her again.
At the beginning of each episode we get a very brief flashback that reveals part of this world’s history. 500 years from now a mad emperor uses his psychic powers to tyrannize the population. 70 years later rebels burst into the palace and kill the emperor.
The whole school gathers for a competition in which the groups try to maneuver a large stone ball into the goal by manipulating clay puppets with their minds.
Saki’s group almost wins but a boy from a rival group prevents them by blatantly cheating. Infuriatingly the teacher lets him get away with it. However a few days later the cheating boy mysteriously vanishes and nobody ever speaks of him again.
The children are now considered advanced enough to be sent on a camping trip by themselves down the river. On the way they encounter some of the large ratlike creatures who provide unpaid construction labor.
The rats are very subservient and worship the humans as gods. However the humans are careful to keep children who have not yet developed juryoku out of their sight–which makes one wonder what the rats would do if they caught a human who didn’t have this power.
Eventually the children encounter a strange library beast who claims to store all the records of this world’s past. What will they do with this knowledge?